Even if you've seen Munly play anytime within the past two decades, nothing really prepares you for this whole Lupercalians thing. For one, it takes some chutzpah to name yourself after a now-obscure ancient Roman rite in which some of the participants wear the bloody skins of goats.
But more to the point, for this show, Munly looked like an unassuming country rocker sans hat. His bandmates, on the other hand, looked like they could have stepped out of Melmoth the Wanderer. That is to say, wearing pointed, masked hoods that seemed to be made of sackcloth.
And then there was the instrumentation: One of the percussionists played an old wood-burning stove, while the other played a set of what looked like some variety of African drums. Their bandmates in black hoods played keys and synths while Munly played only acoustic guitars and banjo.
Who knows what happened to Munly and his cohorts between the breakup of the Lee Lewis Harlots and now -- but the material played on this night was Munly's strongest batch yet. Sure, it was that dark, moody Americana, but underneath that veneer was an almost defiant energy. The percussion was tribal in its steady thickness, like African drum sounds calibrated for a use outside that context.
Munly's vocals, meanwhile, were that kind of melodious, warbly, world-weary and on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown thing that we've heard from him for years, only much more focused here and having lost none of the intensity. The mix of electronic and organic, futuristic and rustic sounds was the musical equivalent of science fiction in reverse: the Frank Bellamy effect, if you will.
At the end, this incarnation of Munly's collaborative musical expression seemed more fully realized and unique than what he's done up to now. Even if you think you know what Munly has been about, this particular group is impressive on its own merits in making harrowing yet moving and beautiful music.
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When the Legendary Pink Dots took the stage, only three members were present, and each was stationed apart from each other: Edward Ka-Spel to the right, the Silverman to the left, and Erik Drost in the center at the back. Opening with "The Unlikely Event," the show started with shaped white noise, like a wind created through an accident of electronics.
Following up, the Dots reached back to 1991's The Maria Dimension for "Third Secret." The ascending chorus, punctuated by theremin and ending in a whoosh of white noise and a deep sound of distant helicopters, made it feel like we sure had to have been transported out of the Gothic.
"Rainbows Too?" had Ka-Spel gesturing widely as he sang "Time to fly" -- as though, through some trick of sympathetic magic, we might indeed take off instead of it being mere metaphor. The shimmery synth, sounding like it was being plucked by the Silverman floating over the top of Ka-Spel's fluid synth work, provided an interesting textural contrast. In general, Ka-Spel seems to find ways for his synth lines to ooze into the next passage with shimmering swells in a way that sounds paradoxically seamless.
The sound of distant aircraft beyond the horizon, a mechanical drone, was the backdrop for the beginning of "God and Machines." Once the song got under way, Ka-Spel gave us a strong example of how expressively emotive he can be.
In doing so, he reminded us that he is one of the few singers around who is able to vocalize with a controlled intensity that is somehow more moving than mere adrenaline-fueled outbursts because it comes from deep within his being.
"Russian Roulette" was one of the few songs that made any concession to pop structure, but its sentiments of not throwing away our own power and retaining the will to be defiant isn't often heard in music.
The profanely sublime "Hauptbahnhof 20:10" started off with somber piano and otherwise maintained a melancholic flavor throughout to the tune of electronic harpsichord. On the previous tour, one of the strongest songs was "Cubic Caesar." This time around, that gritty and haunting song was performed with even more force by Ka-Spel.
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Part of its power might have had to do with Drost's robust guitar work throughout the show. But it seemed like Ka-Spel was projecting more than his fair share of passion into this song. The Hawkwind-esque "Soft Toy" used some of Drost's best guitar work and feedback to create elemental tones like spectral wind. For "Choke," the guitar work was used more texturally, as it would be in a Neu! or Can number.
"Torchsong" and its warped North African sound found Ka-Spel entering an amped, meditative state that allowed him to cast forth an ascending, primal howl to match the instrumentation and rhythm, escalating to a barely contained hysteria as the song drew to a conclusion. The set proper ended with the epic "New Song," from 1990's Crushed Velvet Apocalypse.
It's hard to say what else the band could have done to end the show on a higher note, but Ka-Spel, the Silverman and Drost came back for an encore that began with a Tear Garden song: "White Coats and Haloes," from The Last Man to Fly. Perhaps shades of a Tear Garden tour to come, as Ka-Spel has been stating of late? The show ended with "All the King's Horses" and the sweep of echoing guitar-feedback bird sounds, echoing drums in the distance and the faint hint of melodic synth drones underneath.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: The Legendary Pink Dots have been making some of the most interesting music of the past three decades. Random Detail: Ran into nervesandgel at the show. By the Way: Seconds Late for the Brighton Line is one of the finest of the Pink Dots albums.